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Fetterman and Oz are set to debate in Pennsylvania's high-stakes Senate race

Tuesday night's clash is a huge moment in what could be the year's most important election. Advisers to Fetterman, who is recovering from a stroke, lowered expectations in a memo.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The biggest moment in perhaps the year’s most important election — one that could determine partisan control of the U.S. Senate — happens here Tuesday night.

John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s Democratic lieutenant governor, will face Republican Mehmet Oz, a celebrity TV doctor, in the only debate of the race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.

The stakes are incredibly high. Polling leads Fetterman had over the summer have shrunk to statistical ties within the margin of error, following more than $35 million in GOP ads, many of which have painted him as soft on crime. And, outside of events he's held in recent weeks as he has assumed a more rigorous public schedule, it will be many voters’ first opportunity to see and hear Fetterman since he suffered a stroke just days before the May primary. The Democrat, who disclosed he is facing speech and auditory processing struggles, common for patients recovering from a stroke, has done few interviews since then.

“This is like seeing two undefeated heavyweights finally step in the ring to square off for the title,” Rich Luchette, a national Democratic strategist who is not directly involved in the race, told NBC News. “In fact, there probably isn’t a single more important debate taking place this election cycle. Every moment will be critical.”

WHTM, an ABC affiliate in Harrisburg, will host the debate, which will start at 8 p.m. ET and air live across the state. Debate organizers and the campaigns have agreed to use closed-captioning to allow Fetterman to read questions and answers spoken and transcribed instantly.

On Monday, Fetterman’s campaign distributed to reporters and other “interested parties” a memo that cast the debate stage as a place where Oz, a political newcomer, would be more at home than Fetterman.

Senior adviser Rebecca Katz and campaign manager Brendan McPhillips characterized Oz as a seasoned professional on TV while latching onto a recent Philadelphia Inquirer analysis in which “top political reporters” wrote that Fetterman “wasn’t great at debates” even before the stroke. 

“We’ll admit — this isn’t John’s format,” Katz and McPhillips wrote.

“The TV studio is Oz’s comfort zone,” they added. “This guy is a media-savvy performer who literally built his career (and his fortune) by playing to the cameras as a daytime TV host.”

Such expectation-setting is common in debates, with campaigns often eager to set a bar that’s easy to clear and then earn better coverage that might sway voters. Oz’s campaign did not release a memo of its own, though his communications director in an email said Fetterman would "finally ... have to answer" for his positions on crime and policing. Another Oz campaign aide sent an email calling attention to the Fetterman team's memo.

“Ahead of Tuesday evening’s Pennsylvania U.S. Senate debate, the Fetterman campaign is desperately trying to manage expectations for their candidate before he faces Mehmet Oz in the only general election debate Fetterman would agree to participate in well after early voting started in the Keystone State,” Oz rapid response director Reagan McCarthy wrote in an email. 

Oz, a heart surgeon, had used the debate calendar as a political weapon to call attention to Fetterman’s stroke and recovery. Oz wanted at least five debates, including one as early as the day after Labor Day. Fetterman’s campaign took issue with how Oz’s team poked fun at his health, which included an offer to pay for any medical personnel that might have been required had Fetterman agreed to debate sooner. Democrats accused Oz’s team of “bullying” and questioned whether such rhetoric was appropriate coming from a doctor. 

"I feel like I’m gonna get better and better — every day," Fetterman told NBC News in an interview this month. "And by January, I’m going [to] be, you know, much better. And Dr. Oz is still going to be a fraud."

Oz, in his own NBC News interview this month, maintained that his issue with Fetterman was not so much his health as it was his refusal to release medical records. Last week, Fetterman’s campaign released a letter from his primary care doctor asserting that he is “recovering well” from the stroke and has “no work restrictions,” though auditory processing issues remain.

Fetterman’s senior strategists cited those issues in their pre-debate memo while also previewing what they called the “unprecedented” but “necessary” use of closed-captioning. 

“We are prepared for Oz’s allies and right-wing media to circulate malicious viral videos after the debate that try to paint John in a negative light because of awkward pauses, missing some words, and mushing other words together,” Katz and McPhillips wrote. “The captioning process may also lead to time delays and errors in the exchanges between the moderators and the candidates. In fact, because the captions are going to be typed out by human beings in real time, on live TV, some amount of human error in the transcription is inevitable, which may cause temporary miscommunications at times.”

But Chris Pack, a Republican strategist who is contracting with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a key player in Pennsylvania this year, dismissed such concerns.

“John Fetterman made it very clear that he’s recently been medically cleared with ‘no work restrictions,’” Pack said, “so anything less than a home-run performance will continue adding to his credibility problem.”